More than half of the projected 2.2 billion rise in the world’s population by 2050 will occur in Africa, the only developing region where poverty is still increasing. With more than 243 million people suffering from chronic hunger in 2016, Africa has the highest global level of severe food insecurity with new land for agriculture becoming scarce. Added to this is climate change, over-fishing, and water shortages all contributing to having a major negative impact on food production.
So it can no longer be ignored the challenges the world faces for providing a sustainable food supply for all. We must develop new ways of producing nutritious food that is affordable to the poor if we are to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets of ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. In achieving this, practices cannot result in environmental damage, e.g. through land clearance or air pollution from burning of crop residues: this would undermine progress towards other SDGs.
Malnutrition can often readily be solved by consuming animal products such as fish, meat and eggs, which are excellent sources of protein and micronutrients. However, in many parts of Africa, animal feedstuffs are high in energy but low in protein, leaving livestock malnourished and performing well below their potential. Black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) are protein rich, contain a good balance of essential amino acids, minerals and fats and are highly suitable for feeding to monogastric (non-ruminant) animals. Importantly, BSF are not vectors of disease and pose little risk to the environment, offering a novel approach to an, as yet, intractable challenge. Supplementing animal diets with BSFL will have a dramatic positive effect on animal productivity and health.
This are based on the preliminary conclusion of PROteINSECT, a three-year study of whether feed based on fly larvae could help mitigate environmental problems caused by the rapidly growing global demand for meat and fish which our colleague Elaine Fitches and team were lead on. It has been recognised that insects form part of the natural diets of pigs, poultry and fish anyway.
Farming insects can also be high-tech and sophisticated (depending on investments) offering employment and income in cooperative and industrial-scale operations. Fera Science are part of a team of biomass processing specialists which also include Indonesia and Malaysia, bringing together complementary expertise in entomology, engineering, animal and human nutrition, and social and economic sciences, building upon existing insect-rearing initiatives in Africa and harnessing new ways of dealing with waste crop residues being pioneered in Asia. Hundreds of millions of tonnes of rice straw are burnt each year, wasting a potentially valuable resource. Biomass burning accounts for up to 10% of the 6 million premature mortalities associated with air pollution. It produces particulate black carbon, a range of toxic organic compounds (CO, NO2, ozone) impacting human health and crop productivity and disproportionately affecting the poor. Palm oil mills also face a major disposal problem in SE Asia with vast amounts of empty fruit bunches (EFB). Most EFB waste is applied as mulch to the field but this has recently been shown to be detrimental to soil quality. Crop residues are predominantly lignocellulose (woody material) which cannot easily be digested by BSFL, but when made accessible through degradation by microbes can be used as food by BSFL. Further, after harvesting the larvae, the resulting by-product can be used as a biofertiliser to improve soil health and crop productivity.
Successful, low cost methods for insect rearing will be engineered for implementation by smallholder farmers, cooperatives and businesses in Africa. Stakeholder engagement in several low income countries will identify opportunities to make significant progress towards alleviating animal feed sustainability issues and allow us to identify and address the real world challenges of scaling up the use of insect proteins in animal feeds. Innovative use of crop residues for insect rearing together with use of resulting by-products as biofertiliser will also make food production more environmentally and economically sustainable.
The PROteINSECT report also called for the relevant legislation to be reviewed, at that time Elaine commented that more research on safety was needed before that could happen. Commenting that “Consumers increasingly understand the need to use our resources sustainably, providing we can demonstrate it’s safe, I think insects fed on waste have real potential.”
Dr Adrian Charlton reaffirmed Elaine’s comments “However, early results are encouraging and the potential financial benefits may be significant for livestock farmers. Further research will be needed to ensure that a robust international safety framework for insects in animal feed is adopted and when that is achieved, insects have the potential to change current livestock feeding,”
Fera research into insect protein was featured on BBC Countryfile. You can listen to an audio extract on our podcasts page.